EDITORIALS

Sunday Discussion: Why Do Certain Movies Flop?

by
December 21, 2008
Source: Box Office Mojo

Delgo

Last week I ran across SlashFilm's article about an animated film titled Delgo that was being called the biggest flop of all-time. At first I thought this was just what people were calling it due to its complete box office failure, but I followed a link to a chart that Box Office Mojo had put together. This chart was one of a few in the Worst Wide Openings category organized by the number of theaters each film played in. I spent the next hour going over the flops and failures, as it was fascinating going through them. And instead of just linking to the chart, I wanted to actually put down my thoughts on what I had discovered.

First off, Box Office Mojo is one of my favorite sites that deserves to be recognized for their brilliance, though I'm sure I don't need to tell you that anymore considering they were just bought by IMDb. Anyway, this Worst Openings Ever chart brings up so many interesting aspects regarding the makings of a flop. I'm sure by linking this chart I've already lost readers because, just like me, they're going to spend the rest of the afternoon reading through every last list and looking at the detailed box office analysis of every last movie. Yet another reason why I love Box Office Mojo so much.

Getting to the topic of why movies flop, let's take look at some movies from this list. Delgo is an interesting story of its own, and if you're curious to learn more about it, head over to SlashFilm. I'm also not going to address the marketing side of things because that deserves an article of its own one day when I'm not relaxing during this holiday season. However, I'm going to reference a few of this year's big flops, like Deception, The Rocker, and Walk Hard. And if you spend just a few minutes picking out the films you know and asking yourself why they did so bad, I'm sure you'll have some things to say as well.

The one I want to mention the most is Deception. You might not recognize the title, which is already an interesting issue, so how about the cast - Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman, and Michelle Williams. You're looking at a movie that starred Obi-Wan Kenobi, Wolverine, and Brokeback Mountain's Alma that came out on April 25th, 2008 and ended up in the 9th spot on the Worst Openings Ever list. First things first, that opening date can't really be used as an excuse for its failure, because only seven days later, millions of people went to the same movie theaters and gave Iron Man over $100 million of their money. While opening dates are very important to success, they can't always dictate a failure.

Another interesting point is that the cast should've made this film an instant success (or at least not as big of a failure as it was). Time and time again I hear from fellow moviegoers and industry analysts that big names and celebrities are the most important elements of a successful movie. Not only do I hear this from most of my peers, but I also hear it when I talk to less educated moviegoers about why they're interested in a particular movie. The answer almost always is because they like a particular actor or actress that's in it. So I'm confused why a film like Deception, with at least two big actors, turned out to be a huge failure?

Even The Rocker and Walk Hard also had big names - Rainn Wilson from "The Office", Christina Applegate from Anchorman, John C. Reilly from Talladega Nights, Tim Meadows from "Saturday Night Live," and so on. So what else went into making these flops if they all had big name actors? Was it bad reviews? I don't even remember seeing a review for Deception. And I would expect that comedies like The Rocker and Walk Hard to be "critic proof." Of course, marketing plays into all three of these movies, but I'm trying to find similarities between each without addressing marketing. So far I've found nothing yet, have you?

Maybe it's the story? If anything, this is probably the most important aspect of determining success and failure. So even if Deception or The Rocker was marketed well enough that everyone could identify, based on trailers and other footage, whether or not the story was worthwhile, they decided in the end that it wasn't. But wait, let's flip this around. We all know that studios can market piles of crap to the right audience and make a killing (need I mention Twilight again?). So wouldn't that even disprove this story argument? As far as I can tell, movies with bad stories and unknown casts can still end up hits as long as the studio markets them correctly and finds the right audience. But why doesn't this always work?

To be honest, I don't have the answers to these questions. If I did, I would probably be hired by a Hollywood studio tomorrow, giving them tips on how to make every last movie, no matter the cast or the story or the marketing, a huge hit. And I'm going to admit that I'm continually puzzled by some of these flops that I found on Box Office Mojo's list. Why do they do so bad? How could their failure have been prevented? Would it have been better to scrap the project from the start? Of course, some movies sound bad on paper but turn out great on screen and vice versa. So even making that harsh of a claim doesn't help.

I hate making early predictions, but I'm expecting Frank Miller's The Spirit to be this month's next big flop. First off, Christmas Day isn't the greatest day to put out a highly stylized comic book movie. Secondly, Lionsgate has done a good job marketing it, but the trailers haven't convinced everyone. And lastly, apparently Frank Miller just screwed things up and made an terrible movie, which is sad considering how classic Will Eisner's comic series is. So it seems like we have all the right answers as to why it flopped, but not how it could've been prevented. In the end, I doubt we'll ever truly figure out why movies flop.

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  • Jnyce
    In all honesty I love the spirit. After reading all the terrible reviews i'm still going to see it. I'm not expecting much though.
  • GPX2
    Could someone give me quick definition of a movie flop? I thought it was just a bad movie, but is there more to it. From looking at the list provided I began to think it was a movie that made most the money in the first week. Or does it have to do with budget of the movie to the return gotten?
  • JL
    Haven't they been at this for over 100 years now? Seems like they should already know how to do it.
  • Al
    The Roker and Walk Hard didnt have big names. Wilson is a tv star which usually takes a long time for one to translate to film star. Riley is only a big name amongst film geeks and not film fans. Its usually star power(or lack there of) that creats a flop. If there are a lot of stars, like Deception, than its marking. I never saw a single add for Delgo. Of heres another thing. What if its just a terrible film? To me a flop is created by not big enough names, no marketing, terrible film, or a combination. It really isnt that hard to figure out.
  • Lady Aerin
    The public is fickle, Hollywood has been trying for years to figure them out and still can't always guess. I'd offer market saturation as another factor to consider. There's a wide variety of movies opening next weekend, and I have some interest, to varying degrees in all of them. (Well, not really Marley and Me.) I don't have time, and certainly don't have money to see all of them, so I'll have to make my choices. The criteria I use will likely be quite different than someone else with similar interests; hell, last week I ended up seeing a different movie than I'd planned because the showtimes worked out better. With everything else out there right now, I wouldn't have even known Delgo existed if I hadn't started reading movie blogs. Haven't read the Slashfilm article yet, but I'm guessing Delgo came down to a lack of marketing for a lackluster movie, which was its own fault, and its suffering in comparison to some of the excellent animated films that have come out this year, which wasn't necessarily its fault. Perhaps before WALL-E, Kung Fu Panda, and Bolt, Delgo might have made decent money, especially if released into a market with less competition for kiddie dollars, but in this market, it just didn't stand a chance.
  • Alex, I'm confused. Why would you choose to negate the marketing side of things when that plays such a pivotal role in the success of a film? Literally every film example listed in this article had questionable to piss-poor marketing, so it's not really a surprise that they flopped. Obviously there are other factors as well (some of which you touched on--although it's important to note that some of the "big names" you listed are not considered big names in the eyes of mainstream audiences), but in the end, it all comes back to how the material is being presented/sold to the public. Marketing is what counts. Writing an article about why certain movies flop and then proceeding to completely dismiss how advertising plays into the issue doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. Sorry if this came across as combative in any way. I'm just curious what your thoughts are on this.
  • Lady Aerin
    Wow, looking at the daily chart for Delgo on BOM, during the week it averaged about $20 per theatre. So on average, each theatre sold about two tickets per day, meaning that there must have been numerous theatres that didn't sell a single ticket. That's really bad. Freestyle Releasing, the distributor for Delgo, also released Nobel Son a week before, which is third on BOM's list of worst 600+ theatre openings (on that list, Delgo is 13th). Its biggest success was 2006's An American Haunting, which made $16M domestic on a budget of $14M. Of their other films, The Haunting of Molly Hartley ranks 22nd of worst 2,500+ theatre openings, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale closed after two weeks, and the rest of their top 10 grossers didn't do all that hot either. Geez, I'd rather release my movies on YouTube than go to these guys for distribution.
  • If anything, Iron Man is a reason Deception flopped, as opposed to an excuse for why it shouldn't have flopped. The vast majority of people, throughout April, were making plans and talking about going to see Iron Man, when it came out, etc, people don't go to the movies every single weekend, they may go every couple of weeks, if that. Iron Man was on the top of everyone's list to see, it came out 1 week after Deception, so, the weekend of Deception's opening, nobody really went to the movies period, let alone to that movie. You can observe this in other situations as well. The weekend before The Dark Knight came out, the weekend of July 11th, had Hellboy 2 and Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D opening, and Will Smith starrer Hancock was going into its 2nd weekend, and it was the lowest '2nd weekend of July' in many years, something like 7, or more. The answer, everyone was waiting for The Dark Knight, curious, the weekend of the 11th was the lowest overall gross for that weekend in many years, yet the very next weekend, the weekend of the 18th, became the biggest weekend for the overall box office EVER. When people get their hearts set on seeing a certain big movie, then it doesn't matter whats coming out around it, or whos in it, they've made up their minds. Its not any one thing, several components have to work together in conjunction to get a film to be a hit, but the basic components are release date, cast/crew, marketing/story, and competition. You can still manage a hit with only certain of these ingrediants working for you, but you can just as easily get a bomb if the right ones are working against you. Example, if Twilight had gone up against The Dark Knight, chances are, Mamma Mia certainly would have opened with less, because Twilight attracted the female demographic more than Mamma Mia, or at least a stronger female demographic more. And release dates are very important, look around at box office mojo and examine the biggest opening weekend for any given month, the biggest opening weekend in December is $77 million, for I Am Legend, and the biggest opening for a month like July is twice that, $158 million for The Dark Knight...you need to pick the right movie going month for the type of film you have.
  • Brooke
    Delgo might have not have flopped if it had been released in the early 2000's, like it should have been. Compared to Wall-E and all the other top notch animation films of this year, it's crappy and outdated. But hell, it was made in 1999. Not it's fault that it's a decade behind. Deception didn't look good (at least to me) and just because there are famous actors in it doesn't always mean people will go see it. If the trailer doesn't grab you, then nothing will.
  • LeeMan
    there are reasonable explanations for every movie you just mentined above -delgo- did anyone see any commercial for this ever on tv at all? didnt think so. and the animation is very unappealing unlike up or wall-e -deception- not everyone goes on the internet to watch trailers. theyll see whatever previews they see on tv. deception had like two commericals in a span of one week before it came out. the marketing for this was terrible, they could've really pushed it and it could have made a decent amount -walk hard- john c. reilly ain't funny -the rocker- first of all: the trailer was not funny, second: tropic thunder, pineapple express, and the house bunny were already out, and the rocker got lost in the shuffle also, never forget to look at the # of theaters too, cuz all the above movies mentioned were not released in many of them, oh and ppl pay attention to the tomatometer as well
  • KyB
    You pose an interesting question and I really liked this article...you should study this and write a book...
  • L
    I have always had a thought when I worked at a mall. "What if everyone just happen to decide not to come today?" I think some of the movies that are pretty good that are bypassed may fall victim to this. You may also have to look at a couple other things? (Im not being a smartass with what I say next..) How is the weather? Is it nice and people want to stay outside? Is it vacation season? Is it horrible out and no one wants to travel? Is it finals week? I think all the little factors add up to the much bigger problems already noted. Of course the movie just being a turd will help
  • Jack Donaghy
    "Time and time again I hear from fellow moviegoers and industry analysts that big names and celebrities are the most important elements of a successful movie. Not only do I hear this from most of my peers, but I also hear it when I talk to less educated moviegoers about why they're interested in a particular movie." You can't possibly assume that this is somewhat of an original thought?
  • FakeName
    IDMB has been owend by Amazon.com for the last eight or ten years.
  • I work at a theater, and when the weather is nice, ticket sales are down. Also, when there is a big movie out in the box office (Dark Knight, Harry Potter, etc.) other movies tend to do well also, because when the big movie sells out, it tends to spill over onto other films. #12 you are for sure on to something!
  • Interesting point, and one which will never be able to answered properly otherwise, as you say, you'd be working for a studio deciding which projects get the greenlight. BUT I think it's also interesting to note that this list is decided by number of theatres compared with box office takings. This is the most obvious way to decide the biggest flops. However, as #2 says, what about the film's budget? Surely a number of the movies on this list will actually have made their studios / distributors money back, so can they really be called flops? And yeah, #12 and #15, totally true. Weather has a huge effect, as do petrol prices, new release games, concerts in your area etc. All the little things add up and unfortunately we can't foresee what these are going to be. But if the movie sucks, it sucks...
  • Darunia
    Either something is appealing or it isn't it. Mass Appeal is judged by A) Current World climate, B) Pre Release Reaction from the movie fans, C) Marketing Reaction from viewers. Each one of the ABC, has multiple threads, and you gotta be able to play all the notes if you wanna hit a Iron man out of the park.
  • I would think that Delgo didn't do well because no one knew about it (at least I didn't). However, I should also say what constitutes a flop is blurry in this age of only looking at the opening weekend at that's it. There are some films that are considered a flop early on, but then end up making a profit later on in their run. I can still remember back in the summer of 1998 when There's Something About Mary topped the box office in it's EIGHTH week (which was coincidently the week I saw it).
  • Lady Aerin
    Well, looks like Delgo won't have a chance to make back any money at all: http://defamer.com/5114379/farewell-delgo-from-2100-screens-to-zero-in-a-week-flat And I was wondering why it wasn't on the Box Office Mojo chart for this weekend... Flops are usually relative to their budget; a movie that doesn't recover its budget is a flop, a movie that just about breaks even does okay, but nothing special, and a movie that exceeds its budget is a success, so the final measure of a movie is the ratio of its total grosses to its total budget. So Australia is considered a flop even though it came in 8th this weekend because it's only grossed $42M after 4 weeks, and its budget was $130M. Often movies that flop in the US do make their money back overseas, and sometimes go on to be huge successes globally, but they're still considered flops domestically if they fail to recover their budget. And scale is taken into account, which is why BOM has separate charts to track openings for movies based on their number of screens, and why per-screen average is just as important a number for most box office prognosticators as total grosses; The Wrestler opened at less than half of what Delgo did, but its per-screen average shattered just about every other film this year, so it's considered a huge success. Just my take on the definition of a flop, not what causes a film to become one...
  • Lady Aerin
    Oh, and surprisingly, of the top twenty all-time records for opening weekend per-theatre average, ten were Disney movies, and two others were also animated. The fact that freaking Atlantis: The Lost Empire opened with a $165,000 per screen average shows that marketing makes all the difference in the world. (Curse you for encouraging me to poke around BOM! I spend enough time on that site as it is!
  • #6 Adam - I'm not negating marketing, I'm just saying that's an entire discussion for another day. And even good marketing can go wrong and bad marketing can turn out good. Look at Pirates of the Caribbean 3, they release one trailer, about 3 months before it came out, and it still made over $100 million. There's still many more factors at play besides marketing, although it is a very important part... I'm saying THIS time, let's look at other reasons, because obviously marketing isn't the ONLY reason why some movies flop... #13 Jack - Of course not! I'm just reiterating it in the context of the article... Especially because I hate when that's what so many people reference as the driving factor for the successful of a film, when obviously it isn't. #16 jillinthebox- You won't know a movie sucks until you've paid money to go see it first! 😉
  • Stan Marsh
    Yeah, you're all a bunch of ass rammin' uncle fuckers!!
  • ImaginaryVisionary
    I know you're trying to rule marketing out of this discussion, but I think Marketing is at least 75% responsible for whether a movie succeeds or fails. Release date would be second, followed by cast and then story. For example take The Spirit. The lead actor isn't recognizable, the story isn't going to appeal to everyone, and it's got a very crowded and awkward release date for the comic genre. It's going to get crushed by Marley and Me (the date movie) and Bedtime Stories (the family movie). There just aren't enough single guys going to the movies to make up that deficit. So....the factor missing from your equation is demographics. A film must sell itself to a demographic, but the demographic also has to be large enough to carry the film. I'd never heard of Delgo until I saw the poster at the theater, and even then I thought it was one of those special kid flicks that they show in the morning for free. The family demographic is huge, probably the biggest movie demographic out there, but that demographic is also fickle with their money and their choices because there are children involved, and it's expensive to take the whole family. So is a mother of 3 going to take a chance on a movie she's never heard of risking content she doesn't approve of to the tune of $25-30? Probably not, especially considering the kids would be just as happy to stay home and watch Cars for the millionth time. Marketing relates directly to the demographics as well because certain groups respond better to advertising than others, and certain groups respond better to word of mouth. For example take Australia. I'm not really sure what demographic that movie applies to. It's pretty general. Maybe people in their mid 30's? But teens certainly weren't lining up to see that movie. However had that movie gotten the kind of word of mouth that Titanic got....teens would be lining up to see that movie. The Spirit on the other hand is going to rely heavily on it's marketing because the "cool factor" of Frank Miller's style has to sell that movie to fan boys....because word of mouth ain't gonna sell that movie to conservative adults no matter how good it is....they'll wait for it to come out on video. It's just too odd for their tastes. I think the marketing brings together a demographic where without the marketing the demographic relying souly on cast and plot is too thin to make a movie succeed without solid psychological motivation....which is what marketing provides.
  • jimmy
    Advertising. Deception didn't have trailers showing up in theatres everywhere, and the other two tried to go based soley on internet hype but that aint enough for a movie that's not mind-blowingly cool.
  • SS
    A movie won't work if it has no Message that can be transmuted into an interesting Theme that in turn can be presented as a hook for the audience. Take the example of "The Dark Knight". The tagline says: "Welcome to a World Without Rules" and that's the main idea of the whole story. It's about the Joker trying to unravel our world, and how the forces of order, and ordinary citizenry eventually have to struggle against this unravelling. "Iron Man" does a lot of communicating too. "Heroes are not born, they're made" And while that sounds like a cliched reference to building a suit of armor. It is also a reference to his cathartic experience in the Cave, when he is told "You have everything. and yet... you have nothing." Because people identify with both of these Messages, that contributes to a strong lasting appeal for both of the films above. The rest like casting, Effects, they all help too. But when a film "speaks to its audience" it is very powerful. In its original run, "Superman" the movie claimed: "You will believe a man can fly". The film focused on wonderment, optimism, the need to see and believe in a champion who was indestructible and had a near one-dimensional devotion to all things good. A lot of people responded to this, and the hook of wrapping it in superhero regal worked well. All the best movies, or the ones that did favorably, all have something to say. Even Twilight has some kind of message (though shallow). And most notably films like The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button all have Message Communication as a driver. It's in their taglines, it's in their marketing. I believe it is even in their choice of colors and setting. That's one half the equation. I believe the other half is if the Listeners (ie: Audience) are interested in hearing the message or if they will tune out. There is also the possibility that they were interested, went in on opening weekend, didn't like what the film said about the Message and then spread bad word of mouth. It doesn't even always have to be about a film's "Conclusions" about the "discussion".. It can simply be about what aspects of the topic were presented and in what order. Many things can go wrong once you start communicating. Most movies that do flop, in my view, are confused, and do not communicate or fail to communicate anything that a large number of people would be interested in. It shows in their marketing too. Like.. "Delgo"... What does the title mean? What is it about? Where is the hook? Why should I see this? Why are there no humans in it? Delgo's own tagline is "From a Studio Nowhere Near Hollywood ... From People You've Never Heard of ... Comes a Myth for the New Millennium". That tagline, doesn't mean anything, except to people with a disdain for the Hollywood establishment. But when the establishment serves a vast majority of ticket buyers, this becomes the wrong path to follow. The movie does look better than what Marketing pushed out, and that's a shame if so. Speed Racer suffered similar issues and it was equally clear in promotions that the film had "Nothing to say in particular" except that it was the cartoon come to life. Like Roger Ebert pointed out, Speed Racer is mostly remembered as space-filler on afternoon TV. The movie was, therefore, regarded similarly. That's my two cents. Cheers.
  • Adam
    It really does come down to advertising. This isn't to say that it needs to saturate every tv everywhere, just that it needs to be present and more than anything, competent. Deception looked really... "meh" from the trailers, and when you compare that to other trailers coming out around that time, it was forgettable at best. I remember I was interested because I love Ewan McGregor and Jackman, but the trailers just made it look terrible - I'd guess that all of the other flops probably had really terrible advertising.
  • Question for all of you who claim that it's advertising. Why didn't you go see Deception then? I'm sure you all saw the trailer online here or elsewhere... So why didn't you see it? Not everybody saw the trailer, but those of you that did still didn't go to watch it - why not?
  • MonkeyMan
    I never even heard of this film until the other day. So I'm sure that is why it flopped, a lot of people didn't even know of it.
  • SlashBeast
    It's been said before but it's the truth, advertising. Especially where I live, people don't go to the theatres as mush as they used to and will only go out to see a movie if they're 100% positive that it's a good movie. That's why advertising is so crucial because the big names are the ones which are going to draw people out. It's a shame about Delgo, I've never even heard about the movie until now.
  • jimmy
    Alex. Propper advertising builds hype and that brings people to the theatre. Deception didn't have any presence in the theatres or mainstream media and it did not build any hype. It should have if it markted its lead actors properly as badass characters but they failed to do that.
  • jimmy
    And, like everyone says. No one I know knew of this film. Hence, failed MARKETING
  • jmoney
    For every instant hit in Bug's life & Toy story, there's an unknown sleeper hit in Antz, Shrek, ice age & Jimmy Neutron. I think these guys were aiming to be that kind of sleeper. Problem is when a star wars flick rakes in ONLY $30 mil & HANNAH MONTANNA can't even carry a Disney flick, I think the studio should have put this on the shelf until it could re-tweak its marketing strategy....
  • ImaginaryVisionary
    Visible marketing and good marketing are completely different. I saw the trailer for Deception and it didn't look that interesting. I'm personally not a fan of Jackman, or a huge fan of McGregor (not to the point I'd see anything they put out anyway). So what I was seeing was a movie that was getting very little marketing attention from it's studio, which normally means they don't have the confidence in it to back it with proper marketing in order to salvage what money they've already dumped into the production of the film. So it wasn't just a lack of marketing, but it's also what the message that the lack of marketing itself sends to an audience. I'll go see unheard of films if they look good based on one trailer and I've been completely disappointed before, but I'm more likely to give an independent film that type of chance than I am a big studio film.....because independent films can't put the marketing behind a film, whereas the big studios can. So when they don't....as a movie goer you know the movie is going to be crap. Marketing is the big picture here as it is with everything in this country. It's why Britney Spears is even on the radio, and at the same time it's why great smaller bands aren't. It's why the clothes at Express are ten times the price, and might I add Express doesn't advertise on television, but they've built a brand image that sells itself because we see it elsewhere on television. Films need the same type of brand recognition. Shrek had Happy Meal toys, Delgo...I don't even think they landed at White Castle/Crystal's. Deception never even placed itself in a film genre. The preview looked interesting, but the cast wasn't out promoting it on the late shows, and without some information on the film the average public is left to guess what the film was about based on the poster....which was fairly ambiguous. So when it comes to spending that ticket money why go see something ambiguous when you can put your money on something that has already presented itself as a solid concept through proper marketing.
  • AD
    I hadn't heard of Delgo till I saw the trailer online a week or so ago... and what's more, the character design in the trailer just sucks. Also, why does the trailer go to great legnths to avoid letting the main character say anything? The whole thing looked like some kind of playstation game and the animation looks on par with 1997.
  • I'm a theater manager, and I know that Deception wasn't under advertised, it just didn't look that good. I really think its because of McGregor in that movie. The trailer for that film looked very dark and adult, and I would think that MOST McGregor fans wouldn't buy in to his character in the film. Big Fish, The Island, and the Star Wars, and even his voice in ROBOTS, were all very light roles (opposite of dark? I don't know the correct term). I believe that he, to the general public, is seen as a very likeable character, and maybe thats why that particular movie didn't do well? Either that or it just sucked. This Delgo movie isn't showing anywhere, so to me its obvious its not making money. Week 1, Bolt "flopped" according to the industry standards, but it was a great movie, and it was definitely well marketed. There is no way to tell how a movie will do, and like people were saying, I think it is the little things. For instance, in Colorado, when the Broncos play, its slow. I know that when I go to work on a Sunday it will be a slow day if the game is on. This argument could go around in circle all day, but I think a big factor to a movie doing well, is word of mouth. Thats my opinion and I am sticking to it!
  • Then again, it could be that the expression on Delgo's face makes me think of Barney the Purple Dinosaur. Way too cutesy by half. It might be a great film, but it looks about as sappy as a Veggie Tales movie.
  • Bed treatment to the script and the editing made mess with the film. I was searching for the theame of the movie whole time and guess what.....?I couldn't find it. Hope to see some good one next time.

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